Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

For the last five years I’ve published a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of the year as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime — so, I’m doing so again for 2018 (interesting side note: six of the twenty papers highlighted here for 2018 appear in Science magazine). See previous years’ posts here: 2017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

Read the rest of this entry »

Better Prospects for the Future of South Australia’s Biodiversity

21 11 2018


A major environmental event quietly slipped through the major news outlets in South Australia this week without much of a mention at all. Yet, I argue it’s one of the most important collective assessments of the state of South Australia’s environment to date. 

Yes, it’s been exactly five years since the last State of the Environment Report released by the South Australia Environment Protection Authority (EPA), and on Monday this week they released the 2018 Report. What’s perhaps even sadder than the poor performance of our state’s environmental performance is that it barely got a mention, nor does seem to have been noticed by many South Australians at all. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, when major protests like the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement hardly got a mention at all last week, it’s no wonder that the release of the Report fails to raise the interest of average citizens in South Australia.

Full disclosure here — I contributed to this year’s State of the Environment Report as one of several independent ‘experts’ commenting on particular aspects of our environment. Yes, this year’s report has made a major leap in this regard by not merely reporting the trends of various indicators (and with rather unconvincing conclusions in many cases because of a lack of monitoring data), but by also including independent overviews of Aquatic Ecosystems, Biodiversity, and Coastal Protection. I was the one asked to write the Biodiversity Issues paper.

While you can download the full report here, I thought it best to summarise the key findings in this blog post (supporting references can be found in the report itself):

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Ecophysiological feedbacks under climate change

29 10 2018

Variability in heat tolerance among populations modifies the climate-driven periods of diurnal activity expected for ectotherm species. We illustrate this phenomenon for Iberian lizards in a paper we have just published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (blog post reproduced with permission by the Journal; see related blog).

Common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis, male) and three localities where the species is abundant in Spain, left to right including Valdesquí/Madrid (Central System), Peñagolosa/Castellón (Iberian System) and El Portalet/Huesca (The Pyrenees).

Iberia is a wonderful natural laboratory, with a complex blend of flat/hilly, open/woody and coastal/continental terrain, swept by climatic gradients of temperature and moisture. In 2013, I launched a BES-supported project about the thermal ecology of Iberian lizards and managed to drive over much of the Iberian Peninsula in fairly little time. Not being a reptile specialist myself, I was confronted by the consistent observation that lizard populations occupied very different habitats across the known distribution of each of the ~ 25 known Iberian species belonging to the family Lacertidae.

For instance, the common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) likes water, rocks and mountains, but you can find this pencil-long reptile at the top of a summit, along the slopes or riversides of shallow and deep ravines, on little stones barely surfacing above peatland grasslands, or among the bricks of buildings. These animals must experience different local climates conditional on where they live, and adapt their thermal physiology accordingly.

Having then started a postdoc in Miguel Araújo’s lab — a world-class site for global change ecology and ‘big’ biodiversity patterns — I reviewed a sizeable body of literature looking into large-scale gradients of thermal tolerance. Most of those papers had collated (mostly) one estimate of tolerance from each of tens to thousands of species, then mapped them against regional and global metrics of climate change through sophisticated mathematical frameworks. But these studies rarely accounted for population-level thermal tolerance.

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Save a jaguar by eating less meat

8 10 2018


My encounter with Kaayana in Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. Her cub was around but cannot be seen in the photo

I was trapped. Or so I thought.

The jaguar came towards me on the dirt road, calmly but attentively in the dusky light, her nearly full grown cub behind her. Nervous and with only a torch as defence, I held the light high above my head as she approached, trying to look taller. But she was merely curious; and, after 20 minutes, they left. I walked home in the thickening darkness, amazed at having come so close to South America’s top predator. We later named this mother jaguar ‘Kaayana’, because she lives inside Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. My fascination with jaguars has only grown since then, but the chances of encountering this incredible animal in the wild have shrunk even since that night.

A few years after that encounter, I’m back to study jaguars in the same forest, only now at the scale of the whole South American Gran Chaco. Jaguars are the third largest cats in the world and the top predators across Latin America. This means that they are essential for keeping ecosystems healthy. However, they are disappearing rapidly in parts of their range.

Understanding how and where the jaguar’s main threats — habitat destruction and hunting — affect them is fundamental to set appropriate strategies to save them. These threats are not only damaging on their own, but they sometimes act simultaneously in an area, potentially having impacts that are larger than their simple sum. For instance, a new road doesn’t only promote deforestation, it also increases hunters’ ability to get into previously inaccessible forests. Similarly, when the forest is cut for cattle ranching, ranchers often kill jaguars for fears of stock loss.

Kaayana & kittens

Kaayana was seen years later by Daniel Alarcón, who took much better photos of her and her new cubs

However, the interactions between these threats are still not fully understood. In our new study, just published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, we developed a new framework to quantify how and where habitat destruction and hunting risk acted together over three decades, at the expense of highly suitable jaguar habitat in the Gran Chaco. We also analyzed how well the different Chaco countries — Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina — and their protected areas maintained key jaguar habitat. Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia doesn’t value its environment

5 09 2018

how we treat our environmentThe South Australian State Budget was released yesterday, and as has been the trend for the last ten years or so, the numbers are not good for the State’s environment.

While it has been reported that the budget includes the loss of 115 full-time staff from the Department of Environment and Water, the overall cuts run much deeper. They also herald a new era of not giving a tinker’s cuss for the sorry state of our environment.

I took the liberty of amassing the budget data with respect to environmental spending in this State since 2002-2003 (the earliest year I could find budget papers), and now I’ve just added the 2018-2019 data.

If I’ve selected the appropriate amounts, — side note: someone desperately needs to teach these budget bean-counters how to standardise, report, itemise, and organise data much, much better than they do (my first-year students could do a better job drunk and blindfolded) — then this is what environmental spending (including environment, biodiversity, water, and the Environment Protection Authority) has looked like since 2002: Read the rest of this entry »

Some scary stats about agriculture and biodiversity

20 07 2018

84438Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming the eminent sustainability scientist, Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, to our humble Ecology and Evolution Seminar Series here at Flinders University. While we couldn’t record the seminar he gave because of some of the unpublished and non-proprietary nature of some of his slides, I thought it would be interesting, useful, and thought-provoking to summarise some of the information he gave.

Andrew started off by telling us some of the environmental implications of farming worldwide. Today, existing agriculture covers more than half of ‘useable’ land (i.e., excluding unproductive deserts, etc.), and it has doubled nitrogen fixation rates from a pre-industrial baseline. Globally, agriculture is responsible for between 19 and 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and it has caused approximately 40% increase in observed sea-level rise (1961-2003). Not surprisingly, agriculture already occupies the regions of highest biodiversity globally, and is subsequently the greatest source of threat to species.

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Why populations can’t be saved by a single breeding pair

3 04 2018


© Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

I published this last week on The Conversation, and now reproducing it here for readers.


Two days ago, the last male northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) died. His passing leaves two surviving members of his subspecies: both females who are unable to bear calves.

Even though it might not be quite the end of the northern white rhino because of the possibility of implanting frozen embryos in their southern cousins (C. simum simum), in practical terms, it nevertheless represents the end of a long decline for the subspecies. It also raises the question: how many individuals does a species need to persist?

Fiction writers have enthusiastically embraced this question, most often in the post-apocalypse genre. It’s a notion with a long past; the Adam and Eve myth is of course based on a single breeding pair populating the entire world, as is the case described in the Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods in Norse mythology.

This idea dovetails neatly with the image of Noah’s animals marching “two by two” into the Ark. But the science of “minimum viable populations” tells us a different story.

No inbreeding, please

The global gold standard used to assess the extinction risk of any species is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Read the rest of this entry »

Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.


Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »

When devils and thylacines went extinct

17 01 2018

devil-thylacine-extinctWe’ve just published an analysis of new radiocarbon dates showing that thylacines (Tasmanian ‘tigers’, Thylacinus cynocephalus) and Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisi) went extinct on the Australian mainland at the same time — some 3200 years ago.

For many years, we’ve been uncertain about when thylacines and devils went extinct in mainland Australia (of course, devils are still in Tasmania, and thylacines went extinct there in the 1930s) — a recent age for the devil extinction (500 years before present) has recently been shown to be unreliable. The next youngest reliable devil fossil is 25000 years old.

So, knowing when both species went extinct is essential to be able to determine the drivers of these extinctions, and why they survived in Tasmania. If the two extinctions on the mainland happened at the same time, this would support the hypothesis that a common driver (or set of drivers) caused both species to go extinct. Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2017

27 12 2017

Gannet Shallow Diving 03
As I have done for the last four years (20162015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2017 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

Read the rest of this entry »

Giving a monkey’s about primate conservation

12 12 2017

Urban monkey living (Macaque, Gibraltar) small

Concrete jungle. A Barbary macaque sits in a human-dominated landscape in Gibraltar. Photo: Silviu Petrovan

Saving primates is a complicated business. Primates are intelligent, social animals that have complex needs. They come into conflict with humans when they raid rubbish bins and crops, chew power cables, and in some cases become aggressive towards people.

Humans, however, have the upper hand. While 60% of non-human primate species are threatened, humans grow in numbers and power, building roads through forests, hunting and trapping primates, and replacing their habitat with farms and houses.

To help primatologists choose the most effective conservation approaches to resolve these problems, researchers in the Conservation Evidence project teamed up with primate researchers to produce a global database on the effectiveness of primate conservation solutions. This free database, which can also be downloaded as a single pdf, summarizes the evidence for 162 conservation interventions — actions that conservationists might take to conserve primates. The data come from searches of over 170 conservation journals and newsletters, and each study is summarized in a single paragraph in plain English, making it possible for conservationists without access to scientific journals to read the key findings.

Front cover primate synopsisSo what works in primate conservation? Well, the picture is rarely straightforward — partly due to the lack of data — but there are some interesting trends. Reducing hunting is one area where there seem to be a range of potentially effective approaches. Community control of patrolling, banning hunting and removing snares was effective in the three studies in which it was tested, all in African countries.

Further emphasizing the importance of involving local communities, implementing no-hunting community policies or traditional hunting bans also appeared helpful in boosting primate numbers. In other places, a more traditional approach of using rangers to protect primates has proved a winning strategy. Training rangers, providing them with arms, and increasing ranger patrols all worked to protect primates from poachers. Identifying the circumstances in which community led approaches or ranger patrols work will be key to implementing the most appropriate response to each conservation challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Microclimates: thermal shields against global warming for small herps

22 11 2017

Thermal microhabitats are often uncoupled from above-ground air temperatures. A study focused on small frogs and lizards from the Philippines demonstrates that the structural complexity of tropical forests hosts a diversity of microhabitats that can reduce the exposure of many cold-blooded animals to anthropogenic climate warming.

Luzon forest frogs

Reproductive pair of the Luzon forest frogs Platymantis luzonensis (upper left), a IUCN near-threatened species restricted to < 5000 km2 of habitat. Lower left: the yellow-stripped slender tree lizard Lipinia pulchella, a IUCN least-concerned species. Both species have body lengths < 6 cm, and are native to the tropical forests of the Philippines. Right panels, top to bottom: four microhabitats monitored by Scheffers et al. (2), namely ground vegetation, bird’s nest ferns, phytotelmata, and fallen leaves above ground level. Photos courtesy of Becca Brunner (Platymantis), Gernot Kunz (Lipinia), Stephen Zozaya (ground vegetation) and Brett Scheffers (remaining habitats).

If you have ever entered a cave or an old church, you will be familiar with its coolness even in the dog days of summer. At much finer scales, from centimetres to millimetres, this ‘cooling effect’ occurs in complex ecosystems such as those embodied by tropical forests. The fact is that the life cycle of many plant and animal species depends on the network of microhabitats (e.g., small crevices, burrows, holes) interwoven by vegetation structures, such as the leaves and roots of an orchid epiphyte hanging from a tree branch or the umbrella of leaves and branches of a thick bush.

Much modern biogeographical research addressing the effects of climate change on biodiversity is based on macroclimatic data of temperature and precipitation. Such approaches mostly ignore that microhabitats can warm up or cool down in a fashion different from that of local or regional climates, and so determine how species, particularly ectotherms, thermoregulate (1). To illustrate this phenomenon, Brett Scheffers et al. (2) measured the upper thermal limits (typically known as ‘critical thermal maxima’ or CTmax) of 15 species of frogs and lizards native to the tropical forest of Mount Banahaw, an active volcano on Luzon (The Philippines). The > 7000 islands of this archipelago harbour > 300 species of amphibians and reptiles (see video here), with > 100 occurring in Luzon (3).

Read the rest of this entry »

Four decades of fragmentation

27 09 2017


I’ve recently read perhaps the most comprehensive treatise of forest fragmentation research ever compiled, and I personally view this rather readable and succinct review by Bill Laurance and colleagues as something every ecology and conservation student should read.

The ‘Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project‘ (BDFFP) is unquestionably one of the most important landscape-scale experiments ever conceived and implemented, now having run 38 years since its inception in 1979. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time.

Experimental studies in ecology are comparatively rare, namely because it is difficult, expensive, and challenging in the extreme to manipulate entire ecosystems to test specific hypotheses relating to the response of biodiversity to environmental change. Thus, we ecologists tend to rely more on mensurative designs that use existing variation in the landscape (or over time) to infer mechanisms of community change. Of course, such experiments have to be large to be meaningful, which is one reason why the 1000 km2 BDFFP has been so successful as the gold standard for determining the effects of forest fragmentation on biodiversity.

And successful it has been. A quick search for ‘BDFFP’ in the Web of Knowledge database identifies > 40 peer-reviewed articles and a slew of books and book chapters arising from the project, some of which are highly cited classics in conservation ecology (e.g., doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01025.x cited > 900 times; doi:10.1073/pnas.2336195100 cited > 200 times; doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.021 cited > 400 times; and doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01294.x cited nearly 600 times). In fact, if we are to claim any ecological ‘laws’ at all, our understanding of fragmentation on biodiversity could be labelled as one of the few, thanks principally to the BDFFP. Read the rest of this entry »

World of urban rangers

2 08 2017

Bridging the gap between an urban population and the wildlife we love.IOE_crowdfunding1_web_16-9-with-logo-C

The world continues to urbanise. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the developed nations of the world are 74% urban, and it is expected that by 2050, 70% of the entire world will be ‘urban’. Besides all the other consequences, people’s connection to nature will become more and more distant. With more people living in concrete jungles, a faster pace of life and a barrage of things competing for their attention, we cannot expect that nature, wildlife protection, ocean sustainability, et cetera will be high on the list of their priorities. Other than when the most sensational of news stories are released, how many of them will even think about wildlife, let alone take any personal steps that would make a difference to its survival?

If these are the people who define consumer behaviour and impact policy decisions, they are the ones who will also unwittingly drive the wildlife-conservation agenda. The conservation sector must therefore make a more concerted effort to connect with city dwellers and to do so, understand the motivations and desires of the greater public.

The good news is that despite the grander evidence against it, people do love animals. As children, we are surrounded by animals. Many of our favourite books, movies, clothes, and toys are associated with animals. Even as adults, 163 million of us have watched a video of a panda clinging to its caretaker, 100 million of us went to see Jungle Book, and 700 million more of us visited zoos last year. Marketers play into our love of animals and use the sympathetic or iconic nature of animals on a massive scale in advertising and branding.

If you threw practicality out the window, the most impactful thing you could do to convert that love of animals into a love of conservation would be to airlift those hundreds of millions of people into the Amazon, Serengeti, or Alaskan wilderness for a week. While the experience wouldn’t make all of them conservationists, it would certainly change the way they thought about the importance of nature.

Given this impossibility, the next best thing is to bring nature to them and entice them to explore more within their own means. Shows like BBC Planet Earth or Wild Kratts do a fantastic job of revealing the awesomeness of nature in a way that most everyone appreciates.

But TV shows are still a passive experience where the viewer takes in what he/she is being shown.

Our work at Internet of Elephants is to supplement this type of programming with games about wildlife that can actively be played every day. Our goal is to get people to think about wildlife for five minutes every day and convert the urban world into wildlife addicts. Read the rest of this entry »

Protecting one of the world’s marine wonders

17 06 2017


© CJA Bradshaw

While I’m in transit (yet a-bloody-gain) to Helsinki, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on one of the most inspiring eco-tourism experiences I recently had in South Australia.

If you are South Australian and have even the slightest interest in wildlife, you will have of course at least heard of the awe-inspiring mass breeding aggregation of giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) that occur in May-July every year in upper Spencer Gulf near the small town of Whyalla. If you have been lucky enough to go there and see these amazing creatures themselves, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t yet been there, take it from me that it is so very much worth it to attempt the voyage.


Father-daughter giant-cuttlefish-snorkelling selfie. © CJA Bradshaw

Despite having lived in South Australia for nearly a decade now, I only got my chance to see these wonderful creatures when a father at my daughter’s school organised a school trip. After driving for five hours from Adelaide to Whyalla, we hired our snorkelling gear and got into the water the very next morning. Read the rest of this entry »

Spring asynchrony in migratory birds

15 05 2017


Brent geese flock in the Limfjorden (Denmark)courtesy of Kevin Clausen. The Brent goose (Branta bernicla) is a migratory goose that breeds in Arctic coasts, as well as in northern Eurasia and the Americas, starting from late May to early June. Adults are about 0.5 m long, weigh some 2 kg and live up to 30 years. Their nests are placed in the ground, where reproductive pairs incubate a single clutch (≤ 5 eggs) for a couple of months. They are herbivores, feeding on algae (mainly Zostera marina in Limfjord) and seagrass in estuaries, fjords, intertidal areas and rocky beaches during fall and winter. During summer they feed on tundra herbs, moss, lichens, as well as aquatic plants in rivers and lakes. The species is ‘Least Concern’ for the IUCN, with a global population at some 600,000 individuals.

Migratory birds synchronise their travel from non-breeding to breeding quarters with the seasonal conditions optimal for reproduction. Above all, they decide when to migrate on the basis of the climate of their wintering areas while they are there. As climate change involves earlier springs in the Arctic but not in the wintering areas, there is a lack of synchronisation that leads to a demographic decline of these birds in the polar regions where they breed.

When I think about how species respond to climate change, the song from the ClashShould I stay or should I go” comes to mind. As climate changes, species eventually have to face an ultimate choice: (i) stay and adapt to novel conditions or become locally extinct if adaptation fails, (ii) or move to other regions where climatic conditions should be more suitable. Migratory species have to face this decision every time they have to move back and forth from non-breeding to breeding grounds.

Migration is a behavioural strategy shared by different animal groups like sea turtles, mammals, amphibians, insects or birds. Species move from one area to another usually to feed and reproduce in the best climatic conditions possible. For birds, migration is a common phenomenon that typically entails large movements between breeding and wintering grounds. These vertebrates boast some of the longest migratory distances known in the animal kingdom, particularly seabirds like Artic terns, which can complete up to a round-world trip in a single migratory event between the UK and the Antarctic (1). There are several theories about the mechanisms triggering bird migration, including improving body condition and fitness through unexploited resources (2), reducing parasite load (3), minimizing predation risk (4), maximizing day-light (5), or reducing competition (6, 7). Whatever the cause, birds have to decide when the best moment to migrate is, counting only with the (usually climatic) clues they have at the departure site. Read the rest of this entry »

Noses baffled by ocean acidification

18 04 2017

Clown fish couple (Amphiprion percula) among the tentacles of anemone Heteractis magnifica in Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) – courtesy of Mark McCormick. Clownfish protect anemones from predators and parasites in exchange of shelter and food. The fish tolerates the host’s venom because its skin is protected by a mucus layer some 2-3× thicker than phylogenetically related species (12); clownfish fabricate the mucus themselves and seem to obtain anemone antigens through a period of acclimation (13), but whether protection is acquired or innate is still debated. Clownfish are highly social bony fish, forming groups with one reproductive pair (up to 11 cm in length each) and several smaller, non-reproductive males. Reproduction is protandrous (also known as sequential hermaphroditism), so larvae are born male and, as soon as the reproductive female dies, her widower becomes female and the largest of the subsidiary males becomes the alpha male. The IUCN lists clownfish, generically named ‘anemone fish’, as threatened by the pet-trade industry and habitat degradation, although surprisingly, only 1 species has been assessed (A. sandaracinos). The clown anemone fish A. ocellaris is the species that inspired Nemo in the 2003 Academy-Award fiction movie – contrary to the logical expectation that the Oscars Red Carpet would generate support for conservation on behalf of Hollywood, of the 1568 species represented in the movie, only 16 % of those evaluated are threatened (14).

Smell is like noise, the more scents we breathe in one sniff, the more difficult it is to distinguish them to the point of olfactory saturation. Experimental work with clownfish reveals that the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater, mimicking ocean acidification, alters olfactory physiology, with potential cascading effects on the demography of species.

Places such as a restaurant, a hospital or a library have a characteristic bouquet, and we can guess the emotional state of other people by their scents. Smell is critical between predators and prey of many species because both have evolved to detect each other without the aid of vision. At sea, the smell of predators dissolves in water during detection, attack, capture, and ingestion of prey, and many fishes use this information to assess the risk of ending up crunched by enemy teeth (1, 2). But predator-prey interactions can be modified by changes in the chemical composition of seawater and are therefore highly sensitive to ongoing ocean acidification (see global measuring network here). Experts regard ocean acidification as the ‘other CO2 problem’ of climate change (3) — just to emphasize that anthropogenic climate-change impacts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems alike. Acidification occurs because the ocean absorbs CO2 at a rate proportional with the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and, once dissolved, CO2 becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3), which in turn releases protons (H+) — in simple terms, pH is the concentration of protons (see video about ocean acidification): Read the rest of this entry »

Singin’ in the heat

9 03 2017

coqui & forest

Common coqui frog male (Eleutherodactylus coqui, snout-to vent length average ~ 3 cm) camouflaged in the fronds of an epiphyte in the El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico), along with an image of the enchanted forest of the Sierra de Luquillo where Narins & Meenderink did their study (4) – photos courtesy of Thomas Fletcher. This species can be found from sea level to the top of the highest peak in Puerto Rico (Cerro Punta = 1338 m). Native to mesic ecosystems, common coquis are well adapted to a terrestrial life, e.g., they lack interdigital webbing that support swimming propulsion in many amphibians, and youngsters hatch directly from the egg without transiting a tadpole stage. The IUCN catalogues the species as ‘Least Concern’ though alerts recent declines in high-altitude populations caused by chytrid fungus – lethal to amphibians at a planetary scale (9). Remarkably, the species has been introduced to Florida, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands where it can become a pest due to high fertility rates (several >20 egg clutches/female/year).

Frog songs are species-specific and highly useful for the study of tropical communities, which host the highest amphibian diversities globally. The auditory system of females and the vocal system of males have co-evolved to facilitate reproductive encounters, but global warming might be disrupting the frequency of sound-based encounters in some species..

It is a rainy night, and Don (Gene Kelly) has just left his love, Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), at home, starting one of the most famous musical movie scenes ever: Singin’ in the rain 

Amphibians (see Amphibians for kids by National Geographic) also love to sing in rainy nights when males call for a partner, but now they have to do it in hotter conditions as local climates become warmer. Vocal behaviour is a critical trait in the life history of many frog species because it mediates recognition between individuals, including sexual selection by females (1).

With few exceptions, every species has a different and unique call, so scientists can use call features to identify species, and this trait is particularly useful in the inventory of diverse tropical communities (2). Differences in call frequency, duration and pitch, and in note, number, and repetition pattern, occur from one species to another. And even within species, songs can vary from individual to individual (as much as there are not two people with the same voice), and be tuned according to body size and environmental temperature (3). Read the rest of this entry »

To feed or to perish in an iceless world

1 02 2017


Emaciated female polar bear on drift ice in Hinlopen Strait (Svalbard, Norway), in July 2015 – courtesy of Kerstin Langenberger (

Evolution has designed polar bears to move, hunt and reproduce on a frozen and dynamic habitat that wanes and grows in thickness seasonally. But the modification of the annual cycle of Arctic ice due to global warming is triggering a trophic cascade, which already links polar bears to marine birds.

Popular and epicurean gastronomy claims that the best recipes should use seasonal veggies and fruits. Once upon a time, when there were no greenhouses, international trade routes, or as much frozen and canned food, our grandparents enjoyed what was available at the time. So in some years we had plenty of cherries, while during others we might have feasted on plums. Read the rest of this entry »